Liesbeth Heenk

As a Dutch art historian, I started working as an assistant curator at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo after my studies in art history at the University of Leiden. This museum has a wonderful collection of Van Gogh paintings and drawings. Because of its famous collection (the second most important collection of Van Goghs in the world), this museum was the place where a large retrospective exhibition of his drawings was held in 1990. It was my privilege to work on this exhibition plus accompanying catalogue that commemorated the centenary of Van Gogh’s death in 1890.

PhD at the Courtauld

After the Van Gogh retrospective, I moved to London where I wrote my dissertation at the Courtauld Institute of Art, under the supervision of John House. The topic of the research was Van Gogh’s drawings: an analysis of their function and uses. This PhD thesis is available on amazon, and for Dutch customers on bol.com.

For this research, I investigated and mapped almost all Van Gogh drawings in public and private collections. This came down to about a thousand drawings in total. The research and travels brought me to special places around the world with special Van Gogh collectors; one had his Van Gogh drawing hanging nonchalantly behind the door, the other had painstakingly put it into a safe, waiting for its value to increase.

Christie’s in London

The PhD thesis wasn’t fully finished yet when I joined the Print Department at Christie’s in London. Although I had always seen myself as a ‘proper’ art historian, I was attracted to the excitement of the international auction world, and took the job offered.

I got assigned a part of Europe to value prints of all ages from Rembrandt, Van Goghs to Andy Warhols, and to get them in for auction in London. My areas included France, Italy, the Benelux, Scandinavia, Estonia and Israel. I learned a lot, not in the least from experienced colleagues, and how things work in the Christie’s world..!

Despite the hectic pace of the Print Department, and the busy traveling schedule, I somehow managed to completed the doctorate. Weekend after weekend, I cycled to King Street to catalogue prints, and was dropped off by a taxi at my little apartment late at night, in a dodgy area north of Kings Cross. Being Dutch, I have always found it important to keep both feet on the ground..!

Working in the international auction world, which involves a lot of traveling, very much appealed to me. What’s better than being able to do a valuation at a gallery in Jerusalem, looking out over the walls of the old city and its shining golden dome, and attending an outdoor concert by Zubin Mehta in the evening? Or to fly to Finland to value some Matisses, Picasso’s and Miro’s in the fog, high up north in a log cabin?

After four years I returned to Holland where I served as an art advisor for a year, and finished writing the catalogue raisonné on prints by Howard Hodgkin. That year, I also made a Rembrandt exhibition plus accompanying catalogue for the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam.

Business Development at Sotheby’s Amsterdam

After the intermediate year, I started working at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam as director of Business Development. Again a wonderful time, even though it was a quieter 9 to 5 job,  writing auction proposals, and co-ordinating special ‘single owner sales’ such as the Elephants of Prince Bernhard, the Collection of Boudewijn Büch, the Collection of the late Frits Philips and the valuation of the collection of Queen Juliana, the late Dutch Queen. During my nine years at Sotheby’s, I had two daughters. If I had had a boy, he would have been named either David or Vincent (..). Just a beautiful name, right?!

Independent author and curator

After having exercised this job for 9 years, I set up my own business and worked as interim manager at the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam. I still look at my name tag, with the coat of arms of the queen in embossing on it, with joy and a certain pride..!

Van Gogh

Meanwhile, Van Gogh came back into my life. I was asked to help getting drawings and pictures in for  the Van Gogh exhibition in Rome in 2011, organized by Dr Connie Homburg. The exhibition at the Complesso de Vittoriano was visited by more than 500,000 people.

I greatly enjoy my independency. Being my own boss and scheduling my own time is wonderful. In 2013 I wrote an exhibition catalogue for the Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo, about “The development of Divisionism: From Seurat via Van Gogh (yep, him again!) to Mondrian.” The exhibition travelled to Japan in 2014 and can be seen now in Verona (2016).  I do a lot of other things, such as publishing books, but I won’t bother you with that..! See my website Amsterdam Publishers.

On a mission!

Art history is a wonderful profession, and if I had to choose an education again right now, I would probably choose the same one, although the practitioners of the profession sometimes take it too far. I occasionally think, WHO CARES!

For years, I sucked up all knowledge about Van Gogh like a sponge. Then the moment came when I realized that the knowledge actually hindered me when looking at Van Gogh’s paintings or drawings.

I argue that the way we have been organizing exhibitions and informing the public for years needs to be done radically different. Whenever I visit a large exhibition with works of Van Goghs, I think of what the art critic Robert Hughes wrote about the big Van Gogh exhibition of 1984 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

“The general public, one may predict, will see very little. Its members will struggle for a peek through a milling scrum of backs; will be swept at full contemplation speed (about thirty seconds per image) through the galleries; will find their hope to experience van Gogh’s art thwarted. Distanced from the work by crowds and railings, they may listen on their Acoustiguides to the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, on the merits of the deceased. Then they will be decanted into the bazaar of postcards, date books, scarves – everything but limited-edition bronze ashtrays in the shape of the Holy Ear – that the Met provides as a coda. Finally, laden with souvenirs like visitors departing from Lourdes, they will go home. Vincent, we hardly knew ye.” (Nothing if not critical, London, [1987] 1995, p. 142.)

The phenomenon of the exhibition catalogue seems to me something for art historians among themselves. How about connecting with the general art loving public? This is why I started writing the series Secrets of Van Gogh, intended for all of us eager to learn but who have no prior art historical knowledge of Van Gogh.

I want to share my knowledge about Van Gogh and make it accessible. Think of it as my mission! It’s worth the effort to try and open the eyes of everyone to the extraordinary quality of Van Gogh’s works. For all my books see my Amazon Author page. Don’t be surprised if you find books that have nothing to do with art!

The series Secrets of Van Gogh consist of:

#1. The 1-Hour Van Gogh Book, a brief and t0-the-point introduction to Van Gogh’s life and work.

Available in English (eBook and paperback), French, Spanish, Japanese and in Chinese

# 2. Van Gogh’s Inner Struggle: Life concentrates on the Van Gogh’s life, approach to his work and his mental illness. The book vividly shows that Van Gogh’s life was no bed of roses, and contains enlightening quotes from the Van Gogh letters.

Available in English (eBook and paperback), French, Spanish, Japanese and in Chinese

# 3. Van Gogh Today – Short Stories is a book of fiction, containing eight short stories of lives that were touched in some way or another by the artist. They are a reflection of the power of his story, and why Van Gogh remains a timeless inspiration to all of us. The book is not about his paintings, but tells us about the relevance of the artist’s life story for eight seemingly ordinary people.

Available in English (eBook and paperback), French and Spanish

# 4. Van Gogh in Love tells the story of Van Gogh’s longing for love and a family, exploring the lesser-known area of his -not so- romantic life. As can perhaps be expected from an artist like Van Gogh, his choice of women was rather unconventional, favoring more mature companions, and pursuing relationships with women that were considered unsuitable.

Available in Dutch (eBook and paperback), English in Chinese

# 5. Van Gogh and Money focuses on Van Gogh’s financial situation, a subject never explored before. The Van Gogh letters tell of an eternal lack of money, and the difficulties this created. But how poor was Van Gogh actually? It appears that he was only poor in light of his ambition.

Available in English (eBook and paperback) and in Chinese

Liesbeth Heenk, author of Secrets of Van Gogh and owner of Amsterdam Publishers

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